After the moves 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5, we have the following position:
A few observations about the starting position of the Exchange French that makes it vastly different than any other line of the French Defense:
- As already mentioned, the position is completely symmetrical. Many argue that White is better in symmetrical positions because White goes first. That is not always the case. If Black continues to mimic White's moves to the end of eternity, then eventually, if both sides actually pose the same threat, White's threat will win because White goes first. However, as long as there are no direct threats, symmetry does not harm Black one bit.
- Black's Light-Squared Bishop is no longer hemmed in by his own pawns. That said, with the Black pawn stuck on the d5-square, a light square, Black's Light-Squared Bishop is still considered his "bad Bishop", though it's not as bad as it is in say, the Advance Variation, which would probably be considered the opposite extreme from the perspective of the bad Bishop. Black should still be very happy to trade it off for the White counterpart.
- Anand once made the statement that "If White wants a draw, White has a draw!", implying that if White is going to put no effort into winning and is simply looking for half a point, there isn't much that Black can do about it. That said, despite the drawish nature of the Exchange Variation, most players as White are not looking for a draw, and are often banking on Black to self-capitulate in an effort to make the position exciting, expecting Black to take the risk in order to try to score the full point.
Before we start on the theory, I shall mention that this article will only be covering the lines where White advances his c-pawn, whether that be pushing the pawn to c4 (Section 1), often leading to an isolated Queen pawn for White, or pushing the pawn to c3 (Section 2), which leads to the symmetrical positions based on the line I will recommend. Lines where the c-pawn remains at home on c2 and White plays Nc3 early on will be covered in Part Four when we talk about the MacCutcheon Variation and other lines where White plays 3.Nc3 without 4.e5 as those lines will typically transpose.
It should also be noted that if there is any one thing that is important for Black to know when it comes to the Exchange Variation, it is the general rules about move order. White can play the moves he plans to play in the opening in almost any order, and if your responses don't mesh well together, you can be move-ordered into a line you'd rather not play. More on this when we get to Section 2. Let's start with the c4 lines.
Section 1: White Plays 4.c4
In the lines with 4.c4, White is looking for a more dynamic game at the cost of his pawn pawn structure in that he is willing to deal with an isolated Queen pawn (IQP) in order to have more active pieces. One general rule of thumb when it comes to IQP positions is that the player going against the IQP wants to trade pieces without straightening out White's IQP. If Black can achieve this without losing any material, most endgames will be better for him as the IQP will become more of a liability than a potential strength. That said, Black does not want White to be able to advance that isolated pawn, whether it be to try to shove the pawn down Black's throat and is looking for another Queen, or if it is merely to trade off the weakness. The second thing that Black wants to avoid is symmetrical IQPs. If White ever takes on d5, Black should take back with a piece. Therefore, Black's fourth move is determined, just in case White decides to take on d5 immediately..
4...Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4
And here we see a dark-squared Bishop directly impact d5, a light square, by pinning the Knight to the King. Black should not be so hasty that he takes on c3, but for now, until White castles, his Knight will have no impact on the critical d5-square that Black wants to blockade and White wants to advance his pawn to. Another word of note is that Black should not take on c4 until he is both castled and White has moved his light-squared Bishop off of f1, losing a tempo before being able to recapture on c4, which is very similar to Black's idea in the Queen's Gambit Declined where he waits for White to move his Bishop before taking on c4. That said, White doesn't have a lot of moves that he can play without developing the light-squared Bishop, and so White will normally develop it now.
6.Bd3 O-O 7.Ne2 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nc6 9.O-O Bd6
Now that White has castled and the c3-Knight is not worth a Bishop, Black retreats to his most active diagonal.
And the position is roughly equal. Let's take a look at what happened in a game that was played in 2010 in Haifa. It started off as an English Opening, but it directly transposed to the line in discussion after Black's 6th move.
W: Arie Axelrod (2386)
B: Vitali Golod (2582)
Haifa ISR, 2010
1.c4 e5 2.e3 Nf6 3.d4 exd4 4.exd4 Bb4+ 5.Nc3 O-O 6.Bd3 d5 7.Ne2 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nc6 9.O-O Bd6 10.h3 Bf5 11.Bg5
This is actually a problem piece for White. He doesn't actually want to trade the Bishop as he wants to keep pieces on the board given his isolated pawn, but there aren't many places to put the Bishop. 11.Be3 is very passive and also blocks the open e-file, 11.Bd2 can get in the Queen's way of covering the isolated pawn and potentially help it advance to d5, and 11.Bf4? drops a pawn on the spot.
11...h6 12.Bh4 Be7
Black wants to trade a set of minor pieces. He can force the issue with 12...g5, but then his King ends up becoming very weak with the Queens still on the board.
13.Bg3 Bd6 14.Bh4 Be7 15.Bg3 Na5
Black has no interest in a draw, and so he deviates and avoids the repetition.
16.Bd3 Bxd3 17.Qxd3
Part of succeeding in these lines of the Exchange French is to understand well known general concepts that aren't even specific to the French. For example, when one side has an Isolated Queen Pawn (IQP), often times the diagonal behind the isolated pawn is one that the player with the IQP would like to control and attack down. However, with the Black Bishop already on f5, White is unable to create the battery, and Black eliminates White's better Bishop for what is still considered his bad Bishop, despite the fact that it's not nearly as bad as it often is in other lines, like the Advance Variation.
17...Nc6 18.Rfd1 Bd6 19.Bh4 Re8 20.Rac1 a6 21.Qf3 Be7 22.Bg3 Bd6 23.Na4
White caves in and lets Black trade off the other set of Bishops. White is probably best off continuing to resist and playing 23.Bh4, forcing Black to weaken his Kingside via ...g5 if he wants to eliminate the Bishops.
23...Bxg3 24.Nxg3 Qd5
Taking advantage of White's 23rd move. White now has to trade Queens or else lose his a-pawn.
25.Qxd5 Nxd5 26.Nc5 b6
Leaving White with an ugly decision to make. Trade off yet another piece, or retreat with 27.Na4 when Black is slightly better after 27...Re6. White goes for the former.
27.Nxa6 Rxa6 28.Rxc6 Rxa2
Slowly but surely White's position gets weaker. Now, instead of one isolated pawn, White has two of them. Digging back to the basics again, if material is equal, typically it is better to have fewer pawn islands. Black has two pawn islands while White has three.
29.Rc2 g6 30.Ne2 Kg7 31.g3 Re7
Black has no reason to rush, and he covers all bases before pushing on. The Rook actively attacks down the e-file and at the same time, guards Black's only potential weakness, the pawn on c7. White, on the other hand, has multiple weaknesses, the most obvious of which are the pawns on b2 and d4.
32.Kg2 h5 33.Kf3 g5 34.Rdd2 Ra1 35.Rc6 f5 36.g4 fxg4+ 37.hxg4 h4 38.Nc3
White has managed to hold on to both the weak pawns, but now there are problems with the White King, and Black's next move wins. Do you see it?
This wins at minimum a piece, but White's next move allows mate.
This allows mate in 5, but 49.Nd1 wasn't much better as after 39...h2 40.Kg2 Re1, the Knight falls as White must play 41.Kxh2 to prevent Black from Queening.
All three of White's legal moves lead to mate. 40.Kh2 Rg2+ 41.Kxh3 Nf4 Mate, 40.Kxh3 Nf4+ 41.Kh2 Rg2+ 42.Kh1 Re1 Mate, or 40.Kf3 h2 and White can't stop promotion, and even there, he can only prolong the mate by a couple of moves via 41.Re6 Rxe6 42.Ne4 h1=Q+ 43.Ke2 Qxe4 Mate.
Black won this game via basic knowledge of middlegame concepts. When facing an IQP, block the pawn, trade pieces down to an endgame, and try to create a second weakness. Lastly, use those two weaknesses to overwork your opponent's pieces. This basic knowledge will get you far in these Exchange French lines with c4, and even better yet, these same ideas can be used against IQP positions from other openings.
Section 2: Lines Where White Plays c3.
Here is where things can get tricky for the second player if he doesn't understand the small details of what is going on. One reason some players might play the Exchange Variation is because then White has numerous options of what to do next, and can often get Black in a crossfire if he can trick Black with all the various move order tricks. Therefore, we are going to take a rock solid approach to this, and throw the ball right back in White's court, and wait for White to implode, rather than do it for him. One thing about the lines with c3 instead of c4 is that White doesn't have to play 4.c3 immediately. He can wait. See what Black does. Make Black commit to moves that he will later regret. This is one case where symmetry is a very good thing. Now before you go on saying that symmetrical positions slightly favor White and are otherwise a draw, let's not forget that there is a difference between equal and drawn. The positions end up equal. Below the 2400 level, they rarely end up drawn! One side or the other is going to not play the endgame properly, and make a move that they will later regret making.
Therefore, long story short, with the exception of Nc3, the approach I am going to advocate is the copy cat approach until White makes a move that is undesirable. Against 4.Nc3, I am going to cover what Black should play in the section on the MacCutcheon (Part 4). If White plays Nc3 at a later time, after various other moves have been committed, then a simple ...c6 push works out really well. The Knight on c3 will often be misplaced.
So after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5, White has a number of options that will eventually lead to the lines with c3 played. Here are a few rules for Black that he should follow:
- Wherever White's King's Knight goes, Black's will almost always mimic.
- The Queen's Knight will almost always land on d7 and is typically the last minor piece developed.
- Do not develop the Dark Squared Bishop to d6 too early. White must either have already developed his Light Squared Bishop, or else have already played c3. More on that later.
- Always get the Light Squared Bishop out, whether it be to pin a Knight developed on f3 or to oppose the Bishop on d3 via going to f5 if it's protected, or getting to g6 via Bc8-g4-h5-g6.
- Black's most favorable diagonal for a battery is the h2-b8 diagonal. The Queen is most often better placed on c7 than e7.
- Don't be surprised if the Rooks all get traded off on the e-file.
Below are two examples of positions that we specifically want to avoid:
This is the position that would arise after 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Nf3 Bd6. The problem with this move is that White has not developed his Light-Squared Bishop, and he has not moved his c-pawn yet. Therefore, White can now play 5.c4! and Black has to give in one way or another. If Black plays 5...c6, then after 6.cxd5, we are stuck with the dual isolated pawns that we mentioned earlier should be avoided in the 4.c4 lines. If we take the pawn with 5...dxc4, then we lost a tempo compared to had White developed his Bishop, and then has to move it again to recapture on c4. This is the exact same idea as the battle for the tempo in the Queen's Gambit Declined, where Black doesn't want to take on c4 until White has moved his Bishop already. This is why 4...Bd6 is perfectly fine after 4.Bd3. Now if 5.c4, then we take on c4 and we are back to the IQP position and White spent two moves on the Bishop. If we don't play 5...c6 or 5...dxc4, then our Bishop is going to bet pushed back to the more passive e7-square when White advances his c-pawn. So nothing good can come out of this. This is why Black should simply mimic White, as the first bullet above indicates, and play 4...Nf6.
Here is another position that we want to avoid. White can now easily contest our good Bishop on d6, but Black can't do the same to White because of the location of the Knights. Once again, any King side Knight development should be mimicked in the Exchange Variation.
Now I should note that neither of these lines are totally losing for Black by any stretch of the imagination. They are playable, but they are less desirable in what we are trying to achieve, which is to let White implode, and if White never implodes, we take the draw. Players below 2400 will almost always implode. Our goal is to make them pay for it! If you are, say, and 1800 player, and someone rated 2500 wants to play an Exchange French out to a draw, and takes the draw, let him have it. You should be ecstatic for drawing someone of that strength.
So now let's take a brief look at what is probably the most boring line of all. Please try to stay awake! After 1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Bd3 Bd6 5.Ne2, once again Black should mimic and play 5...Ne7, answering 6.O-O O-O 7.Bf4 with 7...Bf5.
In the game Plater - Kholmov, Chigorin Memorial 1947, Black managed to win after 8.Nbc3 c6 9.Bxf5 Nxf5 10.Qd3 Qf6 11.Bxd6 Nxd6 12.Ng3 Nd7 13.Rae1 Rae8 14.Nd1 Re6 15.Re3 Rxe3 16.Nxe3 Re8 17.c3 Re6 18.Nc2 Qf4 19.Re1 Ne4 20.Nxe4 dxe4 21.Qe3 Qd6 22.Qg3 Qxg3 23.hxg3 Kf8 24.Kf1 Ke7 25.Ke2 c5 26.d5 Rb6 27.b3 Ra6 28.Kd2 Rxa2 29.Rxe4+ Kd6 30.c4 b5 31.f4 bxc4 32.bxc4 Nb6 33.Kc3 Na4+ 34.Kd2 Rb2 35.Re3 Nb6 36.Rc3 Rb1 37.Na3 Rg1 38.Nb5+ Kd7 39.Nxa7 Rxg2+ 40.Kc1 Nc8 41.Nc6 Nd6 42.Ra3 Kc7 43.Ra7+ Kb6 44.Rd7 Nxc4 45.Ne5 Ne3 46.Rxf7 c4 47.Nxc4+ Nxc4 48.Rxg7 h5 49.Rh7 Rh2 50.f5 Kc5 51.f6 Kd4 52.Kb1 Kc3 53.d6 Na3+ 54.Ka1 Nc2+ 55.Ka2 Nb4+ 0-1
So this now brings us to what I call the "Super-Symmetrical" main line. The game I am going to show actually starts out as a Petroff, but will directly transpose to the Exchange French.
W: Zane Eisen (2165)
B: Patrick McCartney (1993)
2014 US Open, Round 5
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d3 Nf6 6.d4 d5
We are now back to the Exchange French with 4.Nf3 Nf6, once again, mimicking development with the King's Knight.
7.Bd3 Bd6 8.O-O O-O 9.Bg5 Bg4 10.Nbd2 Nbd7 11.c3 c6 12.Qc2 Qc7 13.h3
So here is where we finally draw the line and quit mimicking. White has now committed to a slight weakness. Notice how after this move, there is only one pawn remaining to cover the g3-square, and so White no longer has the opportunity to counter the battery Black has with Bg5-h4-g3 because he would drop a pawn. The same cannot be said for Black as he still has both his f-pawn and h-pawn on their original squares, covering g6, and so Black will be able to break up the battery. Again, not enough to claim Black is winning by any stretch, but it's these small middle game nuances that lead to eventual victory in the Exchange French, not blow the White King off the board with flashy tactics like that which could happen in variations like the Winawer.
13...Bh5 14.Rae1 Rfe8 15.Nh4
White's attempt to prevent Black from liquidating the battery. If Black now plays 15...Bg6, White will trade his Knight, not his Bishop, for the Black Light Squared Bishop.
15...Bh2+ 16.Kh1 Bf4 17.Bxf4 Qxf4 18.g3
Playing 18.Nf3 would allow Black to play 18...Bg6 and trading off the Bishops, but the move played in the game is loosening on the White King. Just another small thing to keep in mind. Small things do add up!
White now threatens to trap the Bishop with 20.g4 and 21.f5, and so Black allows White to trade his Knight for the Black Bishop, but White won't have enough of an attack on the light squares to get at the Black King while the White King has been opened up even further with White's last move.
Attempting to trap the Bishop with 20.f5 doesn't work because of 20...Qxg3! Just goes to show how badly loose the area around White's King is getting.
20...hxg6 21.Nf3 Nf8 22.Ne5 Re7 23.Re3 Rae8 24.Rfe1 N6d7 25.Qf2 Qd6 26.Kg2 a6
An important move for Black. Black would like to break in the center with ...c5, but he must prevent Bb5 with the a-pawn before doing so.
27.h4 c5 28.dxc5 Nxc5 29.Bc2 Nfd7 30.b4 Ne4 31.Bxe4 dxe4
This is the first real sign of White starting to slip. He should instead accept a drawn Queen ending with 32.Rxe4 Nxe5 33.fxe5 Rxe5 34.Rxe5 Rxe5 35.Rxe5 Qxe5.
32...Qxd7 33.Qc2 f5
Black's majority now features a protected passed pawn. White's does not. The advantage belongs to Black with this pawn combined with the fact that the Rook on e3 is poorly placed as it can't easily get to the d-file, which is now the open file rather than the e-file.
34.Rd1 Qc6 35.Kh2 Rd7 36.Ree1 Red8 37.Rxd7 Qxd7
The file now belongs to Black. Combine this with the passed pawn and the fact that the White King is far away, the game ends shortly in Black's favor.
38.Re2 Qd1 39.Qb2 e3 40.Kg2 Rd2
White can safely resign here. There is no stopping the pawn.
41.Qxd2 exd2 42.Kf2 Qc2 0-1
So once again, Black gains the victory through the use of small nuances in the middlegame and endgame, and doesn't try to get fancy out of the opening, always looking for asymmetry. Sometimes simply mimicking White's moves in dull openings, putting the ball back in White's court and waiting for him to implode, is the way to go. We saw in the game weakening of the g3 square, weakening of the King, superior major piece placement, domination of the open file, and invasion with the defending King too far away, as the mechanism to winning a game when faced with a dull opening.
This concludes the coverage of the Exchange Variation. The next article I will be covering what Black should do against the Tarrasch Variation, 3.Nd2.
ADDENDUM: Literally the day after publication of this article, a French Exchange occurred in round 1 of the Louisiana State Championship. As practice, take the following, and try to annotate it without the use of a computer. This includes not only identifying errors made, but also identifying threats, as many times a move that doesn't appear to make a lot of sense might make sense after all threats are identified, and not just threats of our own. Make note about the rules listed above and observe how they have been followed as far as Black is concerned. White is a B-Player and Black is an Expert, so there are bound to be many errors. See how many of them you can find when trying to annotate. Once you are done annotating the game, run the game through a computer and see how your assessment compares to that of the bot.
Louisiana State Championship, Round 1
W: David Webster (1609)
B: Patrick McCartney (2046)
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 exd5 4.Nf3 Nf6 5.Bg5 Bg4 6.Be2 Bd6 7.O-O O-O 8.Re1 Nbd7 9.Nbd2 c6 10.c4 Qc7 11.h3 Bh5 12.Rc1 Rfe8 13.Qb3 Rab8 14.cxd5 Nxd5 15.Bc4 N7b6 16.Bxd5 Nxd5 17.Ne4 Bf4 18.Bxf4 Qxf4 19.Ne5 f6 20.Nd3 Qf5 21.Nd6 Rxe1+ 22.Nxe1 Qd7 23.Ne4 Bf7 24.Qg3 Rd8 25.Rc5 Qe7 26.f3 Re8 27.Nc2 Bg6 28.Nc3 Ne3 29.Nxe3 Qxe3+ 30.Qf2 Qc1+ 31.Kh2 Re1 32.Kg3 h5 33.Ne2 Qd2 34.Nf4 h4+ 0-1
Links to the rest of the articles.
Introduction and facing the Advance Variation
Part Two: The Tarrasch Variation
Part Three: The King's Indian Attack
Part Four: The MacCutcheon Variation
Part Five: The Steinitz Variation
Part Six: Beating the French with the Advance Variation